Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Kapporos chickens don't sing!

Every year before Yom Kippur, a small percentage of the Orthodox Jewish community performs a ritual called kapporos (or kapparot, depending on your Hebrew dialect) in which a chicken is ritually sacrificed.  In recent years, there has been growing opposition to this practice, urging people to use money instead of chickens -- a stance that I support.  (See my 2011 blog article, The Kapparot Ritual: How tradition has become a travesty).

In this article, which will be my last on this topic for this year, I would like to address one particular quotation that got wide publicity in a number of articles in September 2013.  According to Rina Deych, a Jewish activist in Brooklyn who has been protesting the ceremony for years:

 "Every year I’d see little kids tell their parents, ‘The bird is crying!,’ and the parents would say ‘No, it’s singing. It’s happy to help us.'   I’d come over and tell them the kid is right.”

Having viewed numerous videos of kapporos ceremonies on YouTube recently, I would agree that the chickens are definitely not singing.  Nor are they very happy.  The call heard most often on the soundtracks is the incessant, shrill, high-pitched peeping of terrified, distressed half-grown chicks.

Kapporos chickens crammed in a crate. 
In many kapporos centers, the birds being used are not yet mature enough to crow or cluck.  They are factory-farmed, eight-week-old broiler birds, not even fully feathered out yet.  They are crammed into crates stacked on top of each other, often without food or water, peeping in miserable baby voices.   Most definitely, the children are right.  The kapporos chickens are crying.

The only time I ever hear that distress call among my own free-range chickens is if a chick is in trouble, perhaps separated from its mother or lost outside the chicken wire fence.  Normally, chickens do not constantly peep or shriek in those shrill, high-pitched voices unless something is seriously wrong.

Chavah and Freidl,
two kapporos chickens rescued in 2012
and now living happily in a sanctuary.
(Photo by Richard Cundari)
So why would the parents think the chickens are singing?  It seems hard to hear those peeping chickens and not know they are crying.

 However, most of the people doing this ceremony are urban Jews who know little or nothing about chickens.  Most likely, the only time they ever see or hear a chicken is at kapporos time, when the birds are all peeping in distress.  They never hear -- and probably do not even know about -- the 40+ different calls that chickens make in free-run flocks where they can express themselves in a natural environment.  So it is no wonder that people think the distressed call is normal.  They have no idea what a happy chicken really sounds like.

The next question concerns why they would say the chicken is "happy to help us."  This statement is more about Hasidic theology than chicken biology.  What I am about to present will probably seem strange, maybe even offensive to many readers.  And yet, this "happy chicken" statement is based on a kabbalistic belief that is central to Hasidic philosophy.   Understanding this POV is necessary for learning how to meaningfully dialogue with Hasidim -- a skill you will need if you ever want to convince Hasidic Jews not to sacrifice chickens.  So, my activist friends, I ask you to set aside your pre-conceived prejudices about Orthodox Jews, put on your multi-cultural hats, and follow me into the world of Jewish mysticism.

To understand why the parents in the Rina Deych quote would say the chicken is "happy to help us," we must go to kabbalah and a doctrine called "raising holy sparks."  Briefly summarized, it goes like this: The "holy sparks" are fallen refractions of the Original Light of Creation, which have descended into lower levels of the material world.  These "sparks" (or spiritual "energies") need to be mystically elevated back to their proper places in the universe. This process is part of what kabbalists call tikkun olam, or "repairing the universe."

Eating kosher food is therefore a sacred act that facilitates this process, provided that the proper blessings are said with the right focus and intention.   (For an in depth discussion of how this doctrine can be reconciled with vegetarianism, read and/or download this interview that Richard Schwartz did with me for his book, Who Stole My Religion?)

Based on this teaching, many Hasidim and other Orthodox Jews see meat-eating as an essential part of planetary healing, because it raises the souls of animals to a higher spiritual level which, in turn, elevates the energy of the entire universe.  I have many times been told that the chickens are hoping to be eaten by Jews at a Sabbath or other sacred meal, and thus have their own spirits elevated through this service to God.  I have also seen this explanation given in the Comments sections of articles and videos as to why the person commenting still eats meat.

And yet, this teaching is rarely, if ever, discussed among those activists who are trying to end chickens as kapporos.  Or, if it is discussed at all, it is only to put it down as, in the words of one activist to me, "a solipsistic conceit" to believe that humans have this kind of central role in the world.  This kind of judgemental attitude only hinders the dialogue.

So, before all you vegans out there go calling the Jews a bunch of medieval barbarians for believing in this teaching, let me remind you that there is a similar story in Buddhism, a religion that is widely upheld among vegans as the epitome of nonviolence.  And yet, Buddhists tell the tale of the selfless rabbit who offered to give his own body to a holy man as food -- and was rewarded by becoming Moon Rabbit, the "rabbit in the moon."  (Read the story here.)   Folktale?  Maybe.  But Moon Rabbit is widely believed to have been an earlier incarnation of the soul that would become the Buddha.  His story is told to Buddhist children as the epitome of self-sacrifice.

Native Americans (Indians) also have similar tales, such as the story of Jumping Mouse, who selflessly gave up parts of himself to help others, and was reborn as a eagle.  We should also remember the widespread custom among Native hunters of thanking the animal for giving its life so the people may live -- a prayer that is not unlike the traditional blessing said by Jews before slaughtering an animal.  In both Native and Jewish traditions, failing to treat the meat of the animal with respect is seen as a sin that can affect the well-being of the entire tribe or nation.  Among the Eskimos, it was widely believed that if one did not honor the spirit of the seal or fish that one ate, then the animals would not reincarnate and the humans would starve.

So, as we talk about the Hasidic belief in "raising holy sparks," please see it in the light of these stories from other, better-known (and often better respected) cultures besides Hasidic Judaism.  If you can honor the teachings of Buddhism and Native Americans, then at least try to understand similar ideas within Judaism.  In fact, the idea that animals might consciously allow themselves to be eaten in order to serve a higher purpose is very widespread around the world.

The positive side of these stories is that they all date from a time when people believed that animals have a form of consciousness or soul, and that they can make decisions about their fate. (Read Do animals have souls?, the most popular post on this blog, for an explanation of the soul concept in Judaism).  The ability to understand the language of the animals was attributed to Solomon and also to later Jewish sages and saints.  In Psalm 150, "everything that has breath" is praising God.  So clearly the ancient view among Jews and others was that animals have a form of consciousness.

The doctrine of "holy sparks" and other traditions mentioned here predate the French philosopher Rene Descartes, the "father of modern philosophy," who believed animals were nothing more than unfeeling machines.  It is the philosophy of Descartes -- not Judaism! -- that is most responsible for the insensitivity and abuses of animals we see today.  (Read my previous article on "animal souls" and Descartes.)

Unfortunately, the insensitivity of Descartes' philosophy has fully penetrated the Western World, including even the more isolated communities such as the Hasidim who use chickens as kapporos.  Thus, although the original "sparks" doctrine says that animals -- even those destined for slaughter -- must be treated with respect, the reality of today's meat industry makes that virtually impossible.  The parents who tell their children that the chickens are "happy to help us" in performing a ritual do sincerely believe this, but, at the same time, they are blocking out the suffering of all those chickens stacked in shipping crates without food or water.

Which brings us to the "down side" of the "holy sparks" teaching:  Just as it is possible to elevate energy through using the material world to serve God, so is it also possible to drag down the spiritual world through the misuse of the things around us.  The Ba'al Shem Tov ("Master of the Good Name"), founder of Hasidism in the 18th century, said:

Portrait of Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer,
the Baal Shem Tov
All things of this world that belong to man desire with all their might to draw near him in order that the Sparks of Holiness that are in them should be raised by him back to God... Man eats them, man drinks them, man uses them; these are the Sparks that dwell in the things. Therefore, one should have mercy on his tools and all his possessions for the sake of the Sparks that are in them; one should have mercy on the Holy Sparks. 

"Having mercy" does not mean we should never kill anything, and the Ba'al Shem Tov himself ate meat.  But he was also sensitive to animals as living beings.  He taught:

A worm serves the Creator with all of his intelligence and ability… A person should consider himself and the worm and all creatures as comrades in the universe, for we are all created beings whose abilities are God-given. -- The Baal Shem Tov (Tzava’as HaRivash 12)

Modern kapporos centers certainly are not "having mercy" on the chickens they sell and use for the ceremony, nor are they considering them "comrades in the universe."  Many have probably never heard these quotes from their founder.  It is doubtful in my mind whether the Baal Shem Tov himself would approve of the way these poor birds are being treated today.

As I explained in "The Kapparot ritual: how tradition has become a travesty," this is not the way things were done back in the days when Jews lived in small rural villages. and people raised their own animals.  Chickens were not raised on factory farms, trucked in for miles in open trucks, then left to go hungry for days on end.  Arguing that "they would be killed anyway" -- as some people do -- is no valid basis for treating them as if they are nothing but inanimate objects.  In fact, even inanimate objects (the "tools" referred to in the "sparks" quote above) should be treated with respect -- how much more so should one be gentle with living things!

"Raising sparks" is the Hasidic ideal, but today's attitudes often fall far short.  Some would condemn the whole culture for this insensitivity.  I place the blame on modern urbanization.  Since it is axiomatic that one cannot commit a sin to do a mitzvah, we must ask ourselves if the suffering of the chickens under modern conditions fails to raise the sparks and might even be dragging them down instead.  We must ask ourselves if the callousness often witnessed at these ceremonies is really the way a true Hasid should behave, or is it a goyishe attitude assimilated from the surrounding gentile culture.

I take the "holy sparks" teaching seriously, which is why I have devoted considerable energy to the question of whether or not it is being done properly.  Both in the above-mentioned interview with me by Richard Schwartz and this 14-minute video (below) that I posted on YouTube, I present arguments from within the Hasidic tradition as to why I believe "raising sparks" through eating meat is no longer possible under the conditions of the modern industry.  I encourage you all to study both of these resources, so that, next time you are told that kapporos chickens are singing in joy to "help us," you will know how to answer with respect and understanding.

UPDATE 2014:  I have written a one-page handout directed at Hasidim on the issue of not using chicken for kapporos. No, it is not vegan or even vegetarian, but it is not directed at vegetarians, it is intended for Hasidim and argues from within the context of Hasidic thought.  Download the PDF here.   Feel free to print and hand it out, adding your own local contact info at the bottom.

To learn how you can be effective in this campaign, get my new book, just out on June 4:  Kapporos Then and Now: Toward a More Compassionate Tradition available on  Neither a vegetarian manifesto nor a "Torah-True" religious tract, I approach the issue as a combination of theologian, cultural anthropologist, and participatory journalist, offering numerous reasons why using money is a better option today -- but also critiquing both sides for both their strong and weak points.  WARNING:  Whether you are for or against using chickens as Kapporos, this book requires an open mind to read. 

See also: The Baal Shem Tov did it with a chicken, so why are you telling me not to? -- my answer to this Frequently Asked Question I often get from my fellow Hasidim.

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